DAVID BLUNKETT: Angst-ridden and middle-class, the BBC ignores the values of those who pay their salaries
On Radio Four last Tuesday night, a heavily-promoted programme tackled yet another phrase in the lexicon of today’s grievance culture.
It was called ‘Code-Switching’ – a term used by some ethnic minority citizens to explain why they feel oppressed on the basis of how they speak, how they present themselves and how they behave.
Code-switching originally comes from linguistics and refers to the practice of alternating between two or more languages during conversation.
The programme’s presenter, Lucrece Grehoua, explained that pressure for minorities to conform in language, tone, dress and body language means suppressing their true identity.
But to claim that conformity in language and presentation is a means of oppression of black and ethnic minority people is ridiculous, David Blunkett (pictured with his mother Doris) says
She said code-switching is ‘common among a lot of black and ethnically diverse people. We do it to be accepted and to progress in white-majority spaces’.
She has told of being taught to become ‘a palatable black girl with a soft voice and unceasing smile’. There is of course an important issue about respect for difference and the avoidance of preconceptions based on either prejudice or a misunderstanding of different cultures.
Diversity is a positive, not a negative, and, as the Black Lives Matters campaign has shown, a failure to understand this is extremely dangerous.
But to extend this into a claim that conformity in language and presentation is a means of oppression of black and ethnic minority people, is, to my mind, ridiculous. Sadly, this programme was another example of how out of touch the BBC has become with many – indeed, I would say the majority – of its loyal licence fee-payers.
Increasingly, the Corporation seems to be striving to appeal to a narrow, metropolitan base which could prove fatal at a time when other media groups are hatching plans for a rival national broadcaster. Playing into the hands of competitors would be a very unfortunate own goal.
Language, of course, is important. As Home Secretary, in 2003, I brought in new requirements for the learning of English and an understanding of British society for those seeking citizenship. For me, the naturalisation ceremony was like welcoming somebody into your family.
You don’t choose your relatives but you do choose your partner or spouse, and they make a commitment in return; to embrace that sense of belonging, which provides the glue that holds any society together.
Crucially, language is important because if you cannot communicate and are not understood, it is impossible to relate to others, share your own diversity and appreciate both the practicality and the culture of the world you have embraced.
And if you can’t be understood – whether you are born here or naturalised – I believe that you inevitably reinforce whatever perceived disadvantage you may have.
As a result, people will see you in a different light. It might be extremely annoying, it might require a conformity you don’t find comfortable, yet to expect the world to adjust to you, is not only fanciful but futile.
As I listened to the Radio Four programme, I contrasted some of the examples of ‘oppressive’ demands involved in code-switching with the language I use in my home city of Sheffield. Us Yorkshire folk have no problem in doing so.
The Radio Four programme bewailed the fact that the language described as MLE (short for Multicultural London English and spoken by black Londoners) leads to discrimination
‘Ey up’ equals ‘hello, it’s good to see you’. The word ‘sithee’ loosely translates as ‘see you’. And of course we use the term ‘love’ in a way that is often misunderstood by southerners.
But the Radio Four programme bewailed the fact that the language described as MLE (pronounced Emily and short for Multicultural London English and spoken by black Londoners) leads to discrimination and exclusion from opportunity in the professions and the world of communications.
I’d heard of ‘estuary English’ – with the former Tory Chancellor George Osborne trying to be matey and ‘right on’ by using the glottal stop and dropping Ts – but MLE was new to me.
Apparently, MLE is now spreading to other cities across Britain. (Incidentally, there is no sense of irony there, in relation to what might be described as linguistic imperialism!).
One contributor to the programme explained people moving to Britain or growing up with a mixed ethnic environment or peer group didn’t necessarily have access to other traditional types of the English language.
To me, this exposed precisely the problem with the whole nonsensical basis of the theory that your background and colour has anything whatsoever to do with your ability to communicate effectively.
Some years ago, I was with my wife in Barbados. On one day we had an interesting chat with a guy on the beach who spoke with a very pronounced Essex accent.
Later, I was chatting away with a Bajan speaking with a very distinct local accent. As a blind person, I’ve always found the concept of discrimination on the grounds of the colour of someone’s skin to be beneath contempt.
And, indeed, the absurdity of those who espouse hate and prejudice was proved when it was pointed out that the guy with the Essex accent was black, and the Bajan man was white.
Of course, the language of rap music is now part of British culture, providing entertainment and creativity. However, it is a risible idea that to avoid people feeling pressurised to ‘code-switch’ we should all be able to join in by speaking the language of rap and MLE.
As part of her argument, the Radio Four presenter – a young journalist who has been described as a ‘freelance multimedia producer passionate and unafraid of asserting her intersectionality within the corporate media world’ – interviewed a successful criminal barrister called Leon-Nathan Lynch. The 31-year-old is from ‘a West Indian family’ and grew up in East London.
She explained how it was vital in his work to be able to code-switch between the language of clients such as rap artists and the language of a judge in court. I would just call this presenting yourself in a professional manner, and being understood.
The lesson I drew from Radio Four’s programme was more about the angst going on inside the BBC. It is clear middle-class programme-makers are desperate to prove they are ‘in tune’
To his credit, the barrister acknowledged that changing his language to suit the circumstances was necessary, rather than an imposition.
He said: ‘My overall ambition was to make sure I was in a position to represent young black men and I was willing to make a sacrifice in order to get there. I was willing to speak in a particular way. I was willing to dress a particular way.’
I’ve made such adjustments all my life. I’ve endeavoured to be the voice of the community that I represented both on Sheffield City Council and in Parliament. But I haven’t lost my accent and I’ve done everything possible not to lose my roots.
Admittedly, I’m not from an ethnic minority but I am from a deprived background. Yet I don’t feel a victim and don’t consider that I’ve ever ‘code-switched’.
What I have done, though, is to ensure that I presented the best possible advocacy, professionalism and clear communication. I understood from my early days that patronising the people I grew up with was never going to work. They always wanted me to look smart, to be confident and to be true to myself.
The lesson I drew from Radio Four’s programme was more about the angst going on inside the BBC. It is clear middle-class programme-makers are desperate to prove they are ‘in tune’.
The consequence is very simple. They are ignoring the working class – such as the people who I very rarely hear on radio or television: those from Yorkshire, the people I grew up with.
It just might, just might, occur to those running the BBC that the most recent statistics about the different socio-economic groups who tune into the Corporation’s radio and television programmes, show an unequivocal bias in terms of the middle class.
Programmes such as Code-Switching will only antagonise many and make social cohesion more difficult.